A Hypothetical Conversation

I was day dreaming (or maybe I nodded off) I had the following conversation with a USU environmental science major, just after he got off his slack line. Don’t let the dreds, chacos, and granola distract you. This guy is serious.

me: Why do you prefer wind and solar to just about any other source of energy?

hipster: Because they are free, don’t you know?

me: You mean free, like the binding energy of certain metallic elements?

hipster: What is binding energy?

me: It is the energy that can be extracted from thorium and uranium through fission?

hipster: You mean nuclear? That stuff is bad!

me: It’s just as free as wind and solar energy.

hipster: No it isn’t. You have to have a totally expensive reactor that produces all kinds of waste and radioactivity that is the most toxic thing in the universe.

me: Don’t you have to have solar panels and wind turbines to collect solar and wind power? Do you know how solar cells are made? Don’t you think hydrofluoric acid is toxic?

hipster: Yeah, but solar panels don’t cost that much, especially if we build enough to power the whole US and Elon Musk said we will have batteries to store power so we can use our laptops at night. And what does hydrofluoric acid have to do with solar panels?

me: Hydrofluoric acid is used in the production of solar cells and can eat through your skin and won’t stop until it gets to the bone and combines with the calcium in your bones.

hipster: Really, through your skin?

me: Yes. And how much would it cost to power the entire US with wind and solar?

hipster: Bernie Sanders said we could pay for it with just the windfall profit taxes on big oil companies.

me: How much would that be in dollars?

hipster: Really when you consider the good of the planet, it’s not that much.

me: In dollars, please.

hipster: Only about 1 or 2 times our GDP, according to Mark Jacobson. We studied his plan for wind and solar power for Utah in my Enviro Sci 201 class.

me: Dollars?

hipster: 10 trillion dollars, give or take

me: Choke!

hipster: yeah, it’s really not that much when you think about it. We totally have to do it to prevent climate change.

me: Why do we have to prevent climate change? Is the climate now at some optimum?

hipster: Because people are damaging the planet. We are a virus on this planet.

me: I am not a virus.

hipster: Humanity is not natural. We are using too many resources, especially in the West. Our lifestyles are not sustainable.

me: Finally there is something we agree about. Your lifestyle is not sustainable. Your mom and dad still paying for you tuition and room and board?

hipster: Yeah, but I totally just got a job at the ARC in the climbing gym.

me: How long have you been at USU?

hipster: This is my 4th year.

me: So are you graduating soon?

hipster: Yeah, I just have 2 years left.

me: Back to the planet. How is humanity not part of nature? There is only one world and we are part of it.

hipster: Population growth is putting pressures on the habitats of many endangered species. People are taking too much from the other species which are stressed and endangered.

me: Please stay on topic. How are people not natural?

hipster: They are not natural because they build freeways and shopping malls.

me: Don’t birds build nests and foxes build dens? How is a house less natural than those?

hipster: You’re old, man. You don’t get it. Humanity is not natural. They are a virus.

me: You mean you are a virus?

hipster: No, people in the West who use air conditioning and drive SUVs.

me: Didn’t I see you pull up in a Subaru?

hipster: That belongs to my parents.

me: Do you use the AC in the car?

hipster: Only when I come back from the whole foods market with my organic soy latte and tofu, dude!

me: What’s wrong with driving SUVs?

hipster: It’s just like putting a knife into the belly of Mother Earth.

me: How so?

hipster: It took 30 million years to form the oil you burn in one tank of gas for your SUV.

me: That’s part of the reason why I’m promoting nuclear power. I would like for all humanity to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, which is only possible by access to affordable energy.

hipster: But the nuclear waste problem has never been solved and nuclear power is something we don’t need because we can power the whole earth with wind and solar power.

me: How much will that cost? And how is that possible?

hipster: Bernie Sanders said we could pay for it with just the windfall profit taxes on big oil companies.

me: You said that before. Wasn’t that for just the US? Give or take $10 trillion dollars?

hipster: Mark Jacobson has built a model showing how the whole world can be powered by just wind and solar with some pumped hydro for baseload power and at night. I heard that in one of my classes.

me: Focus, how much in dollars?

hipster: My class hasn’t got that far yet. I think we will be discussing that right after we study how CO2 is causing ocean acidification.

me: Did you know that nuclear reactors do not emit CO2?

hipster: I told you we don’t need them, man! And what about the unsolved problem of nuclear waste?

me: Nuclear reactors produce power day and night and when the wind doesn’t blow. Of course we need them. The supposedly unsolved problem of nuclear waste is a red herring.

hipster: What do you mean red herring?

me: I mean that there are many ways to deal with the very relatively small amount of waste produced by nuclear reactors, especially thorium reactors.

hipster: But they told me in my Enviro Sci 303 class that the nuclear waste problem can never be solved.

me: Thorium molten salt reactors produce less waste than any other form of energy production including solar and wind and they produce prodigious amounts of energy, day and night. Waste from molten salt reactors can be separated and sold for industrial uses. The pounds of radioactive material remaining from one large reactor from each year’s production becomes less radioactive each day. What to do with that is a very solvable engineering problem.

hipster: Well, Elon Musk, you know the guy who makes the Tesla cars and SpaceX, is building a gigafactory to make batteries that you can install in your garage. The battery is charged during the day with solar panels so I can have lights and recharge my iphone at night, so we don’t need nuclear, which is too expensive anyway.

me: What about hot water and heating? It gets pretty cold in Logan in the Winter.

hipster: Yeah, you can run the heater with the batteries, too.

me: You mean the fan on the furnace? Do you know how many solar panels and batteries it would take to actually heat your house?

hipster: Just a solar panel or two. Tiny houses are totally sustainable. I’m going to buy when after I graduate.

me: Where do you live now?

hipster: In my parents’ basement. But I am totally getting an apartment cause I just got a job at the ARC.

me: How many solar panels and batteries would it take to heat your parents’ basement?

hipster: We learned in class that we just need to turn down the thermostat in the winter and we could easily heat our homes with solar panels.

me: Turn it down to what?

hipster: Like 68 degrees, dude. I can totally do that.

me: How many solar panels and batteries would it take to heat the basement with the temp set to 68, then? What about the famous Cache Valley inversions? How many panels then?

hipster: Just a couple.

me: Why don’t you try that and let me know how it works out for you.

hipster: Totally, dude! I gotta get back to my slack line. My buddies are calling me.

me: Poor fool!

awake me: Did anyone see me drool?




Elon Musk

It’s been barely a week since I wrote about SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk. But here I am again writing about Mr. Musk. He recently made some claims about renewable energy that must be challenged.

I actually think that nuclear fission, if it’s in location that is not subject to natural disasters like in the case of France, there’s a very high percentage of nuclear, I think that’s actually a good thing. Obviously, you don’t want to have nuclear fission power plants in places that are subject to natural disasters because that obviously can go wrong. I think fission is a good approach.

I agree with Musk that fission is a good thing. However, I am unaware of any place on earth not subject to natural disasters. Is not France subject to natural disasters? Does he really mean earthquakes and tsunamis when he says “natural disasters”? Is this just a cryptic reference to Fukushima?

Fusion is also interesting and it’s exciting to see what’s happening with ITER Project, which is a fusion plant that’s being built in France. I do think fusion is a feasible technology. I think we can definitely make fusion work, but it is a far off technology. So to make fusion at the power plant level work is probably, I don’t know, 30 years away and a lot of effort.

Fusion is a chimera. Six decades and tens of billions of dollars on fusion energy and we are still decades away. Nothing will ever come from ITER. It is just a uber pork project of the EU.

Molten salt reactors using uranium and thorium were demonstrated by Oak Ridge National Labs 50 years ago. They are everything that fusion pretends to be. We need them now.

That’s why at least for now and I think maybe even in the long-term, I’m a proponent of using the big fusion power plant in the sky called the sun. The sun is a giant fusion explosion and it shows up every day. If we have photovoltaics, solar panels, we can capture that fusion energy. It also needs to be stored in a battery so we can use it at night. Then we want to have high power lines to transfer solar energy from one place to another.

Musk is correct about the sun. It delivers astronomical amounts of energy to the earth every day. However, that energy is very diffuse, diurnal and seasonal. And there is no practical way to store that energy on a level to meet the needs of a developed country.

Never mind that Musk owns companies that sell both solar cells and batteries. He has a monetary interest in claiming that both his products can meets society’s needs.

Let’s say if the only thing we had was solar energy—if that was the only power source—if you just took a small section of Spain you could power all of Europe. It’s a very small amount of area that’s actually needed to generate the electricity we need to power civilization. Or in the case of the U.S., like a little corner of Nevada or Utah would power the United States.

Musk says that a little corner of Utah or Nevada could power the US.  This is technically correct, but practically and significantly wrong. As I said before, the sun sends enormous amounts of energy to the earth, but it is spread out, doesn’t come at night and hardly at all in the winter.

Regardless of whether Musk thinks a few hundred square miles of Utah or Nevada is a “little corner” or not, how do we store gigawatt hours of electricity produced in the summer around Las Vegas and deliver them to Maine in January? The solution to that problem is not trivial and is the necessary component to Musk’s vision. And, by the way that component does not exist.

In the end Musk is just repeating the myth that renewables can power our future. They cannot. Not if the future consists of the energy use levels we currently enjoy to heat, cool, and light our homes and power our cars and deliver goods and services for our use.

Mr. Musk has been very successful in business and he is respected by many, especially young adults, but he is wrong about solar energy.